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More Than Blood: Science, Culture and Equity In Menstruation

A light blue background with a white toilet paper roll, white menstrual pad, and white tampons laying on it.
Tim Reckmann / Flickr / CC
There's no "standard" way to period. Menstruation experiences vary as wildly as the people who have them.

When we start to talk about menstruation, a whole coded language emerges. Whether it’s the “visit from Aunt Flo,” “riding the crimson wave” or just “that time of the month,” it can be hard to talk openly and directly about periods. But digging out important information about menstrual health from beneath stigma and taboo is worth the effort, as each menstruating person experiences their cycle differently.

Host Anita Rao learns about the scientific and cultural history of periods with Kate Clancy, an associate professor in the department of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and host of PERIOD podcast. And Jasmine Shabazz, board member and youth advisory council member of PERIOD, joins the conversation to talk about menstrual equity.

Interview Highlights

First Periods: "When I started my period, I didn't realize that that happened. So I thought I was dying. I thought something was wrong with me." - Amanda, Raleigh

  Clancy on the variability of menstrual cycles:

Our bodies are very responsive to environmental stressors, like how much we are eating, how much we're moving around, whether we're say, living in a global pandemic — and even the kinds of psychosocial stressors we're facing … These kinds of things tell our bodies that there are stressful things going on ... And if that's the case, then it makes sense for us to experience variability during that time, because that's a flexible, adaptive, really smart response our bodies are making.

Shabazz’s response to arguments for the tampon tax:

You have the opposite argument of: Oh, but you know, period products generate so much taxes for the state. And in the state of South Carolina, that's $4 million. And it's trying to understand that menstrual necessities are a medical need, they shouldn't be taxed.

Shabazz on the roots of period stigma:

First Periods: "I grew up with a lot of women in my house and as soon as my period started, I had everything. I had the pads, I had Advil on deck..." - Lena Vann, Greensboro

I feel like growing up, you know, you're taught to hide your purse, hide your backpack, don't let people know that you're menstruating. Because it fits into the idea of uncleanliness in that your body itself is being sexualized. And that people shouldn’t know that you're able to get pregnant now, people shouldn't assume that you, as a child — that's something that you're thinking about. And it goes into the whole idea of sexualization of young Black girls as well.

Clancy on talking to her children about menstruation:

One of the things I always did was just really normalize menstruation. My kids spend a lot of time in the bathroom with me — when you have kids, you don't always have a lot of privacy going to the restroom. So [my older daughter] saw me changing out pads, and I explained quite often. In fact, my 3-year-old also is very curious about pads and likes to open them up and play with them. And I talked about what goes onto them. So that experience has certainly been normalized for a really long time for both of my children.

Kaia Findlay is a producer for Embodied, WUNC's weekly, live talk show on health, sex and relationships. Kaia first joined the WUNC team in 2020 as a producer for The State of Things.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist and the host and creator of "Embodied," a live, weekly radio show and seasonal podcast about sex, relationships & health. She's also the managing editor of WUNC's on-demand content.